Long-running Louisville, KY (by way of Bloomington, IN) gothic folk/country band Murder By Death has been relatively quiet in 2017, but they’re hardly resting on their laurels. When we caught lead vocalist/guitarist Adam Turla on the phone, he was in the middle of myriad projects surrounding Lupo, the restaurant he and wife/bandmate Sarah Balliett recently opened in Louisville. It sounds like more than a full-time undertaking, but they’re taking a day away from operations to entertain the good patrons of the Würst Music & Beer Festival this weekend in the West Loop. Apropos of both the restaurant and the festival at hand, we mostly talked about food, but we also got to touch on haunted hotels and the rare pleasures of radically misinterpreted lyrics.
How are you doing this afternoon?
I’m good, just working on construction projects, which I’ve been doing a lot lately. My bandmate Sarah and I just opened a restaurant here in Louisville about a month ago. We’ve been working on it for about a year and a half, constant 12-16 hour days. It’s going really well, though. We’ve had kind of a quiet year with the band because we’ve been working on that. Once we can kind of hand things off a little bit, we’ll get back into writing, but right now, we’re still in the thick of it. Luckily, we’re closed on Sundays, so we can come do this show in Chicago!
That works out well. Sounds like the restaurant is taking up a lot of your time, which is appropriate, because a lot of my questions are centered around food. What kind of stuff are you serving at your restaurant?
It’s wood-fired pizza, handmade pasta. Very Italian, but with some broader stuff as well. The chef is Sarah’s brother Max, and he draws influences from all over. He’s in there all day, every day, busting his butt.
Are there any special surprises in store for Würst attendees during your set?
For me, it feels like the surprise is that we were able to get out and play a show! I honestly think the thing that’s exciting about it is that, when you do less shows—like, when you’re in a year like this where you’re all kinds of regrouping—you tend to really enjoy playing. When you’re not playing shows every night and super-rehearsed, there’s a quality that I really like. It feels really natural, because you’re not sure how it’s gonna go down. When you’re out on the road doing it every night, sometimes it can feel a little routine, but these one-offs, especially at these kind of Chicago street fests, tend to be a lot of fun.
You’re playing the Würst Music and Beer Fest, where there will of course be a lot of bratwurst. Do you worry about the tour van ramifications of that?
[laughs] Well, I’m just hoping to be sampling the wares and getting my fill. I love the combination of food and music. It’s just nice to get out there and do something relaxed and fun like this.
Basically every touring musician I know has food rules for when they’re on the road, mostly to avoid unseemly bodily incidents during long stretches of travel. Do you have any such rules that might be of particular interest to our readership?
No, actually. We eat well on the road; we have traditions, but no rules. Everyone in our band eats everything… nobody has any dietary restrictions, and we’re very adventurous eaters. We have a group meal every day, sort of a breakfast/lunch, where we do a lot of research to find the best, most fun place in town, like any kind of secret diner-type place with good eggs and whatnot. We try to make that a focal point in our day, where we all hang out and have a nice meal. Our only rule is “don’t eat crappy food.” We eat junk food sometimes, because it’s fun, but good junk food. The best junk food.
A former touring member of the band Harry and the Potters, Zach Burba, once told me that the other members of the band had made an elaborate map of every good doughnut shop in the United States. Also, I just talked to Andrew W.K. exclusively about pizza for a half-hour (for another Riot Fest article).
We’ll have to get him into our pizza place! I had no idea he was so passionate, though I guess he’s passionate about everything.
Right, but when I told him that I just wanted to talk to him about pizza, he was so excited.
Well, it’s something to talk about other than yourself. I mean, I get it. I like talking about pizza. Murder By Death are pizza travelers as well. We do a lot of research. On this trip, we’re going to go to Bonci, which just opened in Chicago. It’s our favorite pizza place in Rome, we go every time we’re in Italy. I think it’s, arguably, one of the top three pizza places in the world, so their opening in Chicago is heaven-sent. I’ve been to Bonci a dozen times, and I’m a few thousand miles away. I would go weekly if it was in my town.
Your records often revolve around a theme or story. Is there a particular meal that you think you could write a whole LP about? To be clear, this is both a question and a dare.
We went to Di Fara Pizza in New York, way off the subway line in Brooklyn, about 30 minutes past anywhere that most people go for restaurants. Di Fara is run by this old dude, Domenico DeMarco, that emigrated here when he was 20 or so, and he’s been making pizza in the same shop for like 50 years. It’s always him at the oven, it’s very famous, and the waits are crazy. We waited for three hours the last time. I don’t wait for food like that; I don’t need it to be the trendiest place or whatever. We really wanted to go there, and we were with someone who wanted to try it, but we never thought it would take that long. There’s sort of like a Sartre, No Exit kind of thing going on when you’re waiting in line for three hours, just the torture of thinking “surely, this can’t be worth it.” Normally, if I had to wait for three hours for something like that, I’d automatically be so influenced by the wait that I wouldn’t like it. I’d been there before and knew it was really good, but there was still no part of it that thought it was going to be worth it.
When we finally got it, though, it was just like “oh, damn, this really is one of the best places in America for pizza!” We were almost made we liked it so much. You could write on and on about it, though, because the people-watching is incredible, the people who work there are all a bunch of characters, it’s a ramshackle old building that nobody’s done anything with in decades… it’s got a lot going on.
Speaking of places where there’s a lot going on: you guys have plans to return for a run of shows next year at the Stanley Hotel, the famously haunted hotel that inspired The Shining, for the fifth year in a row. What’s the spookiest thing you’ve experienced at the Stanley?
There’s been a surprising amount of spooky things. We usually go for 4-5 days, so we’ve spent some time there, and we always check in with our crew after a couple of days to see if anything weird has happened. The green room of the concert hall is supposed to be one of the most haunted places: it’s got this creepy hobbit door to this nowhere basement where you’re not supposed to go, and I dunno if it’s wind going through there or what, but the door will just blow open and slam shut. One time, our stage manager went down there by herself at the end of the night, just closing up, and she walked into the room right as there was a gust of wind, and the light bulb in the room just burst. She was like, “Get me out of here!”
My favorite story, though, is from when our friend Jen came there from Champaign-Urbana for the weekend. I was sitting at dinner with her, and she suddenly jerked up and asked if the waiter had just touched her shoulder. I was staring right at her when it happened, and there was nobody behind her, but she swore that somebody had just grabbed her shoulder. So, y’know, we joked about it, “spooky ghost,” whatever, and forgot about it. When she went to the airport the next day, though, as she went through the security, the alarm went off. They couldn’t find anything on her, but where she had set it off, there was a mark on her shoulder, right where the “ghost” had “touched her.”
Maybe we just see it because we’re looking for this stuff, but we sure have a lot of fun cataloging it. That was the craziest one, but there are other things, like the TV turning on without anyone touching anything, stuff like that.
Your songs are often a form of high-tension, high-drama storytelling. Have you ever tried to listen to one of your own songs and re-interpret it as if it were about an eating contest? I did it yesterday with “It Will Never Die,” and it worked pretty well.
I like the idea. I’ve never done that, but people always interpret your lyrics, especially if the lyrics are more obscure. Some of our stuff is very direct and there’s a clear story, but the more obscure stuff will often yield people writing you with questions and different interpretations. Sometimes they get it, and they’re really able to glean whatever you’re trying to say. Sometimes, they make up this extraordinary thing that is definitely not what you intended, but it’s fascinating, and you even think “well, maybe that would work.” Sometimes, though, it’s completely insane, like it’s from another planet, and those are my favorites. They stretch it so far, and leave out major clues to the subject matter, and that’s when it gets good.
I’ll have to tell my bandmates about yours. They’re always trying to change the words around to make it funny, so that I’ll screw up and sing the joke version that they’ve been singing. We have a song called “Shiola,” and there’s a line in there: “is it wrong to love a family of ghosts?” They always say “is it wrong to love a family of goats?”
That’s the one that always gets me. The answer to the question in that revised lyric, of course, is “it depends.”